Great Things He Hath Done

2 Corinthians 9:15 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

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I love this season of the year–as we approach Thanksgiving and prepare for Advent and Christmas, it is a good time to reflect and celebrate all the wonderful things God has done, and all the ways He has blessed us. But there is also a danger in this season. We are tempted to look around and compare our blessings (and our struggles) with others around us. We are tempted to be envious, depressed, and stressed about our circumstances. Or we look at our blessings and feel smug and self-satisfied, instead of grateful and humble.

What “Great” things am I thankful for? Sometimes I make a list of all “my” blessings–my health, my family, my home or car, my freedom (as though I had done anything to earn such blessings)–and I stop. Sometimes I make another list of all the “Great” things God has done in nature–beautiful sunsets and majestic forests, glistening snowflakes and spring blossoms–and I stop. Sometimes, I even thank Him for the trials and struggles and difficult relationships that He has allowed to refine me and build my character to be more like His– and I stop. Sometimes, I thank Him for the great things he has done for others–miracles of provision, safety, or healing.

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But there is a deeper level of thankfulness– one that takes my breath away and causes me to fall to my knees– one that thanks God for WHO HE IS– truth, righteousness, salvation, mercy, wisdom, power, and boundless, unconditional love. Every great work of God has its origin in God’s Character. Every sunrise shows His faithfulness, every snowflake His infinite creativity. Even tragedy can reveal His tenderness and healing and precious promise that NOTHING can separate us from His love. In giving His greatest gift, God spared no expense; he held nothing back. Jesus defeated sin and death by becoming sin and experiencing death–FOR YOU and for ME! For anyone, for everyone, who will accept His gift and trust in His character. How often do I list all the great things God has done and stop before I let the amazement of the Great I AM to overwhelm me? How often to I celebrate Thanksgiving without ever reaching this level of true Thanks-giving?

Whether we celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey and pumpkin pie, or with beans and wienies; whether we celebrate with family, friends, strangers or alone; even if we celebrate on a different day, or in a different way, may we always find ourselves amazed by the Greatness of God. May we truly give God more than just thanksgiving this year. May we give Him all the Glory–Great things He hath done!

Hannah and Her Rival

Hannah is a Bible heroine. Her story is an inspiration to many women who suffer, whether from infertility, depression, or being misunderstood. Hannah is a popular girl’s name.
Peninnah, on the other hand, is a name you rarely hear today. No one wants to name their child after a bully, and a rival to a Biblical matriarch.

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As we read through the story in 1 Samuel, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+1&version=NIV it seems hard enough that Hannah is barren. Especially as it is revealed that God is responsible for her condition. It seems unfair and harsh. But her trouble doesn’t end there. She has a rival–Elkanah’s other wife– who provokes, irritates, and taunts her, making her cry and keeping her in a state of anguish and stress. Peninnah has many children. She has reason to be joyful and proud. Yet she spends her time harassing and hurting Hannah, a woman who is already “beneath” her in society.

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Rivalries tend to bring out the worst in us. Catfights, gossip, taunting, undermining others–books, movies, and even TV series have been built on such pettiness. Whether rivals at school, rivals in romantic relationships, rivals in business, or rivals in our own inflated egos, we allow our world to be narrowed to focus on two people who don’t even exist! We magnify our rival’s faults, twist her motives, and hold grudges over what she “probably” meant when she said “that.” And we justify our overreactions, our grievances, and our tendency to see ourselves as innocent victims.

In the case of Hannah and Peninnah, their world was already small. They were sharing a husband and a household, and likely somewhat isolated from the kind of society with which we are familiar. We live in societies where polygamy is illegal and wives do not (generally) live together. Our families tend to live in single units of husband, wife, and children. However, we also live in a society where fidelity is becoming more rare. Marriages break down, couple break up, and “sharing” a husband, if not a household, is more common than we might admit. Even in divorce and remarriage, we may find a rival in our husband’s ex-wife, or our ex-husband’s new partner, or our partner’s ex-mother-in-law (or our current mother-in-law) or among our step-children.

Elkanah is not an innocent bystander in all this. We don’t know why he has two wives, and the Bible doesn’t say that Elkanah did NOT love Peninnah, but it makes a point of saying that Elkanah DID love Hannah (suggesting that he might have been indifferent to his other wife). Also, the Bible is silent about whether or not Elkanah was aware of the rivalry going on under his roof. He seems totally oblivious and largely absent. Even though he loves Hannah, he doesn’t take care to protect her from Peninnah’s spite.
Once again, we find parallels in our own situations– husbands who feel overwhelmed or blind-sided by the rivalries going on around them; husbands who ignore the firestorms; even men who revel in being the focus of so much attention.

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But, before we label Peninnah the great villain of this story (or turn our anger on Elkanah for letting their rivalry continue), let’s be careful not to rush to judgment. The Bible doesn’t call Peninnah a villain, merely a rival. It says that she provoked Hannah, and taunted her, and even made her cry. However, the story is focused on Hannah. Her reaction to this taunting was to do what so many of us do– to let it heap up on her and push her down into anguish. Hannah doesn’t fight back. But neither does she stand up to her rival. If Peninnah is trying to make Hannah feel worthless and depressed, she succeeds because Hannah allows herself to believe it.

I think there are several key lessons here, and I think God tells us the whole story because there He wants us to see these lessons.

  • Rivalries and conflicts WILL arise in our lives. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise or refuse to deal with them. If you have a rival in your life at this moment, stop and think of ways you can seek peace. Pray, reach out, seek help. This is especially important where children are involved. If you have a rivalry with in-laws, ex-spouses, your children’s step-parents, it WILL impact all your relationships. It will be the way your children learn to relate to others. Whether you are the “bully” or the “middle man” or the “doormat”, you have a responsibility to make an effort to restore harmony. You cannot change the other person, but you can (with God’s help) change the way you build your legacy. And God can change everyone involved.
  • While Hannah did well not to react to Peninnah with her own spite and malice, she let her rival “win” by saying and doing nothing. Jesus teaches us that we are not to ignore those who hate or despise us, but to love them and pray for them. Hannah could have offered to reach out to Peninnah and her children, but she remained isolated. Maybe that was because of Peninnah’s actions or bitterness, but the Bible doesn’t say that Hannah made any effort to end this rivalry, either. She didn’t seek help from her loving husband, and she didn’t seek help from her loving God until she was at the end of her rope.
  • Spite, malice, bitterness, or even self-righteousness (or whatever else may have prompted Peninnah’s nastiness) not only hurts others, it hurts us and blinds us to the opportunity to do good. Peninnah had many children and lived in the same household with Hannah. Instead of taunting her and causing her grief, she could have opened up her heart to allow for a happy, unified family. Peninnah’s hurtful actions are her legacy to every generation that reads this story. She may have been a wonderful mom, a talented women, a real beauty– but she will always be known as the rival who made Hannah miserable. Our actions, even in our own household, have eternal consequences. Small acts of pettiness and spite can follow us for the rest of our lives, destroying our reputations, and blotting out all our “good works”.
  • Our abilities, skills, talents, status, or fertility DO NOT define our worth. God closed Hannah’s womb– he never closed His heart toward her. He gave her a husband who loved her and provided for her. He kept his eyes on her until the time was right to bless her in a supernatural way. God had opened Peninnah’s womb, but she kept her heart closed, and bragged about her children as though she alone were responsible for them. God had provided Peninnah with a husband who provided for her and created a family with her. She had children and a secure home, and reason to sacrifice to God with thanksgiving, yet her focus, even during her visit to the tabernacle, stayed on destroying her rival.
  • What makes Hannah a heroine in this story is NOT the way she bears up under bullying. Even though she didn’t get sucked into anger and malice, she fell victim to despair and depression. Hannah’s victory comes ONLY after she turns everything over to God in prayer. Peninnah’s pettiness is crushed by God’s miraculous provision.
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May this be true in our lives, too– That we would turn to God, and replace bitterness, pettiness, pain and rivalry with His joy, fulfillment, and grace.

Victims and Victors

My husband and I own a small retail business.  Last winter, we were victimized by shoplifters.  They stole several items, worth over $1,000.  The same couple stole items from other businesses in the area.  The police investigated, compared descriptions of the suspects, traced their movements, and got an arrest warrant.  The couple fled, and it took months to find them and bring them into custody.  They have been arrested, and we have been to court for a preliminary hearing, with another potential court date in about a month.

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The court sent us a long series of papers to fill out, including a victim impact statement, where we were to describe how the suspect’s alleged actions impacted us personally, as well as how our business was damaged.  Even though this was not a personal crime (we weren’t physically threatened or harmed, or specifically targeted with an intent to ruin our business), there are still scars–distrust, fear, frustration, and loss, to name a few.  Just because a crime isn’t personal, doesn’t mean that no one suffers.  It has been an awkward process to write out the victim statement, and to appear in court and recount all that happened that day, but it has also been a good process.

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Being a victim is not a pleasant experience.  It is frightening, humiliating, maddening, and bewildering.  “How could this have happened?”  “Why did it happen to me/us?”  “What did I/we do wrong?”  These are honest questions that go unanswered.  But the biggest question may be “Where was God when this happened?”  Didn’t he know?  Didn’t he care?  Why didn’t he act to stop this crime?  Why did he allow it to touch us?

In the months since this happened, I’ve learned to ask some other questions of God–

  • What other “bad” things have you kept from us without our knowledge?  What good things have you showered on us that we took for granted?
  • Who else has suffered the same or worse things– how can I reach out with empathy or understanding?
  • Where are people suffering without justice?  Even though we have had a long wait, we know that the police and court system have been working for us.  Where are people living who suffer without hope, in silence, and in fear of seeking help?
  • What can we learn from this experience?  How can we make our store and our community “safer”?  How can we heal, and bring justice instead of wallowing in hurt or seeking revenge?

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God has a plan, even in times of trial and questioning.  We all will be victims at some point in our life–of injustice, of crime, of disease, of poverty, of losses, of disaster, and of sin’s consequences– our own sins and the sins of others.  We can also be victors, through the power of the Holy Spirit.  We can overcome bitterness and addiction; we can triumph through cancer, depression, or heartbreak; we can rise above setbacks and circumstances; we can choose forgiveness and healing over hatred and self-sabotage.  We can move from being perpetual victims to eternal victors, through Jesus Christ our Lord!

“Do You See Anything?”

Mark 8:22-26 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

Jesus Cures a Blind Man at Bethsaida

22 And they came to Beth-sa′ida. And some people brought to him a blind man, and begged him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the village; and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see men; but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then again he laid his hands upon his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and saw everything clearly. 26 And he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”

Have you ever wondered why certain stories and events are recorded in the Bible while others are not?  Scholars and theologians have been trying to make sense of this story for centuries.  Why did Jesus spit on the man’s eyes?  Why did He do the healing in two stages, when He had the power to heal the man instantly?  Why did He grab the man’s hand and lead him out of town?  Why did He tell the man not to enter the village on his way home?  We are left with dozens of questions and no definitive answers.

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This is not the only gospel story (or Biblical story for that matter) that raises questions and includes inexplicable elements.  In fact, many people, wanting to discredit the Bible, point to stories like this as “proof” that the Bible is not “true”; there are too many unanswered questions, inconsistencies, gaps and omissions. Why is God silent for hundreds of years between the prophets and the gospels, or why do we have no account of Jesus’ teen years?  Why are there stories of some of the Judges, and mere mentions of others?  Why did some writings become “canon” and others became apocryphal or even heretical?  For my part, I find such stories to be proof that the Bible IS inspired by God– Truth really is often stranger than fiction!

I don’t intend to try to answer all the unanswered questions, but since I think that ALL scripture is inspired by God, I’d like to look at what this passage might have to say about prayer, sight, and walking with Christ.

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First, this story comes about because, as Jesus is coming up to Bethsaida, he is approached by a group begging him to heal their blind friend.   Jesus responds by taking the blind man by the hand and leaving– taking him out of town and away from his friends.  We aren’t told why, but I think even without explanation, there are two “takeaways” here:

  • The blind man was not asking for healing– for whatever reason, his friends were the ones asking for help on his behalf.  We jump at the chance to pray for people who ask for help and prayer, but are we as eager to pray for those who do NOT?  The passage says the friends brought the blind man to Jesus– it doesn’t say if the man came willingly, grudgingly, unknowingly, or eagerly.  His friends brought him and begged for Jesus to touch/heal him.  We should have the same passion for lifting up our friends, family, neighbors, bosses, community workers, leaders, and even enemies.
  • Jesus took the man out of town to heal him.  Nowhere in the passage does it mention that his friends followed or saw the healing take place. The story includes them, and their actions, but it is not ABOUT them.  Just because we beg God for a miracle, or ask Him to help us plant a seed or make a difference, doesn’t mean that we will get to see the result.  Often, God will remove someone from our life just as they are on the verge of changes– even miracles– for which we have prayed.  That doesn’t negate our need to keep praying, nor should it diminish our joy at the ultimate result.

Next, there is the curious circumstance of the two-phase healing.  Jesus spits, touches the man’s eyes, and then asks, “Do you see anything?”  It is a unique question from Jesus.  Normally, in the healing process, Jesus doesn’t ask, he commands.. “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (Mark 2:11 NIV);  When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out! (John 11:43 NIV);  He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”) (Mark 5:41 NIV).  Just as curious is the answer from the man.  Yes, he can see, but there is obviously a problem that needs to be addressed.  In this instance, healing did not come instantly and completely.

My point here is not to speculate, or try to find answers as to why this story is so different.  But once again, I see a couple of points to ponder:

  • Jesus often leads us to a place of questions instead of clear solutions, and it can be frustrating and uncomfortable.  But he doesn’t leave us there, alone and with no remedy (even if it feels scary in the waiting!)  Jesus did not torment the man with a hundred questions; he didn’t blame the man for not seeing clearly right away; and he didn’t leave him unable to see clearly.  Instead, he asked the man a simple question, “Do you see anything?”
    • When I am in a season of questions, am I listening for and listening TO the questions or merely itching for an easy answer?

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  • Jesus didn’t explain his question or justify his healing.  He didn’t redirect or ask a hundred clarifying questions.  He was more interested in the man’s response.  The man could have answered, “Yes, I can see,” and walked away disappointed and half-healed.  He could have answered in anger or bitterness or sarcasm and unbelief.  “How could you do this to me?.  What good is my sight if everything looks wrong?”
    • How do I answer when Jesus leads me to a place of questions?  Am I honest with myself and with Him about what I see (or don’t see clearly)?  Do I answer with the truth, or do I answer with impatience and distrust?

Lastly, we have a curious ending to story, though one more consistent with other healing events– Jesus restores the man’s sight so that he can see perfectly.  Then he directs him NOT to enter the village when he returns home.  Once again, I want to look at what I can learn and apply from this passage:

  • God wants to bring restoration and correction.  He wants me to see clearly.   He wants me to see others clearly; he wants me to see Him clearly.  It isn’t just physical sight that is important to Him.  He wants me to get insight as well.  I don’t need to have all the answers to the many questions this passage brings up to get insight and wisdom from it, but I do need to see that there IS wisdom to be gained from studying even the odd passages He has chosen to give us in His Word.

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  • God brings healing and insight, but He also gives us direction– in this case, the man was NOT to enter the village.  Once again, we are not given a reason why.  And we are not given any information as to the man’s response.  Did he obey?  It is a curious feature of many of Jesus’ healings that He commands people not to run off and tell others.  On this point, since it happens often, I will speculate..I don’t believe that God wants us to stay silent about miracles and blessings, but I do believe that there are good reasons to pause and reflect before we spread the word:
    • So often, in our elation and wonder, we trumpet “our” miracles and blessings– as though we were singled out because of who we are or what we have done or how we prayed.  We don’t do this on purpose; we’re normally not even aware of how it sounds to others…In time, the wonder sinks deeper, the humble awareness of God’s mercy and grace replaces the initial euphoria and self-congratulation.  We bring more glory to God and less attention to ourselves.  In my excitement when God sends me blessing, do I try to take some of the credit, or take pride in His gifts?
    • Related to this is the temptation to forget that others around us are still in pain or darkness.  God’s power to heal is absolute, but He doesn’t choose to remove all pain, nor does he prevent us from experiencing suffering and tragedy.  We NEED to share stories of His power, mercy, grace, and joy, but we need to do so with loving insight into the hearts and lives of others, remembering to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15)  Do I spend equal time listening to others, praying for them and sharing their burdens?
    • The commands of Jesus are not arbitrary or capricious.  We may not understand why, but we should trust that they are for our good and God’s glory.  We don’t know what might have awaited the man in Bethsaida.   What we do know is that Bethsaida was singled out (along with Chorazin) as a village of unbelief and stubborn refusal to accept miracles.  When God closes a door of opportunity in my life, do I keep trying to break in?  Or do I take the next step in faith?

So I ask myself today– “Do I see anything?”  “Do I see clearly?”  and “Am I obeying Christ’s direction for the next step?”

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Broken Prayers

In “Pursuing Prayer”, I want to explore ways to develop my prayers; to become “better” at praying– more confident, more Christlike.  But along the way, I have found that “better” doesn’t always mean what I think it ought to mean.  Sometimes, becoming “better” requires becoming broken.

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I don’t like being broken.  I don’t want to be shattered, ruined, like a broken vase.  I don’t want to pray like a broken record– sending up the same failures, the same weaknesses, the same painful memories.  I don’t want to be pinched, and cracked, and mangled.  I don’t want to be stretched and molded and squeezed.  I want to have comforting chats with God, not drawn-out confessions, or rebukes, or unanswered questions.

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It is tempting to avoid brokenness–cover it up, pretend, deny, ignore its existence.  I don’t want to bring God my questions, my fears, my hurts.  I don’t want to open up the dark places of my soul.  I want to wear a smile and make small talk with God–“How are you today?”  “Just lovely, Father, and how are you?”  “Fine weather we’re having.”  “Yes, thank you for the breezes yesterday.  And could I just put in a plug for my neighbor’s gall bladder surgery?  I told her I would pray for her, so could you just give her a speedy healing?  That’d be great.  Well, gotta run. Talk to you soon…Oh, and I’m sorry for the way I blew up at the kids the other day.  I don’t know WHAT got into me.  You know I’m just not that way, right?  So I’m just asking for grace to kinda cover that up and make it ok again.  Thanks.”

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God is not fooled.  God is not impressed or amused at our shallow righteousness.  He’s not impressed or overcome by our brokenness, either.  But He wants it, anyway.  He wants all of it.  Because He wants to build honesty, intimacy, and most of all, restoration.  God doesn’t want us to wallow in our failures, any more than He wants us to gloat in our false perfection.  He wants to break the bondage they have over us.  He doesn’t get tired of hearing our voices, even in guilt or shame, rage or despair…if they are raised to Him.  He doesn’t want us to stay shattered and ruined.  But He needs us to be redirected, refreshed, rebuilt, rekindled, and renewed.

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There are many things that need to be “broken” to become better– we “break” in shoes, we “break” ground to create a new field or prepare for a new building.  We “break bread” to eat it and share it with others.  We “break” horses in order to prepare them to run or work more effectively.  We “break” bad habits.  We even “break” the ice in a new friendship.  The point is not to stay broken, but to “break through” whatever is keeping us oppressed and held down.

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When I am feeling broken, and I cry out to God, He doesn’t deny my brokenness; He doesn’t turn away in disgust; He doesn’t stick a hasty bandage on my wounds.  God acknowledges my pain, He listens to my questions.  He loves me enough to come and stay with me through the worst moments–even when others have gone; even when I deny His presence and turn my face to the wall–and He begins the process of turning even those scars and cracks and tears into treasures.

Brokenness is inevitable in our fallen and broken world– God is not out to break us; people and time, circumstances, and even our own good intentions will cause us to fall and fail–am I willing to uncover my brokenness and need, and allow God to reshape my shattered dreams?

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We Hold These Truths…

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness–Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (July 4, 1776)

Full text of the Declaration of Independence

We’re getting ready to celebrate our Independence Day in America.  There will be parades, cookouts, parties, fireworks, and a host of other celebrations.  There will be a lot of flag-waving and patriotic displays.  At some gatherings, there may be readings of our Declaration of Independence.  This document was drafted to outline, not just a list of reasons why they should rebel, but what they hoped to build as a result of their struggle for freedom.

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Over 240 years later, this document, and what it stands for, is still relevant and calls us to a high standard– one our nation has not fully achieved.  In spite of the great strides we have made and the example we have been to the rest of the world, in recent decades, we have left behind many of the very truths we aspired to hold.

First, there is a dangerous belief that “truth” is no longer self-evident, nor is it timeless.  We don’t hold beliefs and truths anymore.  We shift with the tide of public opinion and the shadowy promise of “being on the right side of history”– which just means being on the winning side of the current debate within our lifetime and hopefully into the next set of history books.

Second, we have spent countless hours, shedding blood, sweat, and tears over the phrase “ALL MEN”– struggling to reach the promise of equality for all humankind.  We have fallen short of this vision, and twisted it into a grotesque parody of itself.   Instead of working together in unity and inclusiveness, we have devolved into factions each fighting to be “more equal” than others.  Instead of looking at the equal value and humanity of all our people, we point fingers at all the people who are “less worthy”, “more privileged”, “entitled”, “marginalized”, “intolerant”, “judgmental”, who “need to be silenced”, or “need to be kept in their place”…how can neighbors and fellow citizens be so vicious?  One answer may be found in the very next phrase…

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ARE CREATED equal, and are endowed BY THEIR CREATOR…Usually, this phrase is emphasized in the exact opposite places– the emphasis is on EQUAL and ENDOWED.  We have lost the “truth” of being “UNDER GOD”.  We have lost the truth of being created.  We have lost the truth that our worth, our rights, our values, are not a product of our own opinions and observations.

It is easy to point to others and say, “They are ruining our country– They are not living out these truths.”

The harder lesson is to look at my own assumptions, actions, and beliefs.  Do I TRULY believe that all the people around me– of every creed, gender, race, political party, nationality, educational achievement, or economic level are created equal and endowed BY THEIR CREATOR with value, and inalienable rights?  If, at any point, I make assumptions about the worthiness of “those people”, assuming that God loves me more, or will have more mercy or grace toward me because of who I am or how I behave; because of the color of my skin, or where I live, or who I voted for; because of the things I know or the good deeds I have done–I am part of the problem.  Christians, if we bear the name of Christ who created all mankind, and we hate those whom Christ created, the love of Christ IS NOT in us.

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That doesn’t mean that we ignore sin and compromise our character, and pervert justice in the name of a comfortable facsimile of equality.  But it also means that we must stop whitewashing hatred and injustice in the name of morality.  Morality without love cannot heal our nation.  Nor can rewriting our history.  Nor can declaring our Independence.

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The Declaration of Independence is not a stand-alone document.  It had no authority on its own.  If our founders had lost the Revolutionary War; if they had abandoned their vision of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”; if their descendants had failed to bring a divided nation back into unity; if our parents and grandparents had not struggled and fought to make our nation live up to its principles; and if our generations fail to come together and work toward that same vision– Independence will not be something to celebrate, but something to detest.

While it is called the Declaration of Independence, it is a spirit of dependence– on God, on His truth, and on the goodwill of our fellow Americans, that keeps this document alive and full of promise.

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We need to pray for our nation– and for our own revival– if we are to truly celebrate this Fourth of July.

Forgiveness is Free: It Isn’t a Free Pass

Yesterday, I posted about praying for our enemies– those who have hurt us.  We are commanded to forgive those who have wronged us, to do good to them, and to pray for them.  But I want to make sure I don’t give the wrong impression about offering forgiveness.

Forgiveness doesn’t ask us to excuse the inexcusable, or trust the untrustworthy.  Forgiveness is trusting that God, in His wisdom, His Holiness, and His timing, will bring justice, healing, and peace, when nothing else can.  This is important to remember, both as someone who asks for forgiveness, and as someone who gives it.

Jesus offers forgiveness–full, and free, and perfect– he died to make that offer.  He gave it to whoever believes on His Name.  But here’s the catch…he didn’t make that offer so you can temporarily wipe the slate clean and go on sinning without consequence.

Oscar Wilde wrote a chilling novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Dorian Gray/Wikipedia    in which the title character finds a way to trap his soul, with all its ugliness, hatred, anger, and sin, inside a portrait.  No matter what Dorian does, no matter how twisted or evil, he continues to look fresh, young, innocent, and handsome.  The effects of his dissipated lifestyle–drug addiction, sleepless nights, years of hard living, even murder–are all trapped in the portrait.  Over the years, the portrait haunts Dorian with its monstrous transformation from young man to gnarled wraith.  In desperation, he “kills” the portrait– and himself– in disgust and anguish.

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We live in an age of appearances– if all appears well on the surface, we ignore the deeper, long-term consequences of our sin.  If we “get away with” small sins, we run the risk of sinking deeper into a sham lifestyle.  We go through the motions of asking forgiveness, when what we really seek is escape from the consequences of our own actions.  We begin to see sin as a valid alternative to obedience–I can obey God if it is convenient, but when it’s not, I can just ask forgiveness.  This is a road strewn with lies, excuses, evasions, and it ends in death.  It is a lifestyle that makes a mockery of God, of his Holiness, His Sacrifice on the cross, and His loving offer of restoration.

God doesn’t just want to transfer your ugliness and rebellion into a painting to hide it away.  He wants to remove it “as far as the east is from the west.”  We don’t become perfect in an instant, but our past is expunged so that we can be free to choose obedience and live more abundantly in fellowship with a Holy God.  When we are truly sorry for our sins and seek true forgiveness, we want to make better decisions, we want to right wrongs– we want to redeem the past rather than merely escape from it.

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When we, as imperfect people, offer forgiveness to someone else, we are not able to do what God does.  Our forgiveness is imperfect; like love, or discipline, or a new habit, it needs to develop and grow.  Forgiveness is not about freeing the offender, or wiping the slate clean for the other person.  It’s about freeing yourself to heal, to move away from slavery to the pain of the past, and to learn to trust God to bring justice.

Forgiveness isn’t natural or easy.  No one deserves forgiveness– that’s what makes it a miracle that God offers it to anyone who asks.  But God doesn’t undo our sin.  He doesn’t erase our actions, or clean up the messes we have made.  If I commit murder, God can forgive me, wash away the guilt of what I’ve done, and give me the power to live a life that seeks to do good, rather than evil.  But he’s not going to bring my victim back to life, or cause a judge and jury and the family of my victim to say, “Aw, that’s alright– you’ve probably learned your lesson.  No hard feelings.”  He can (and has) caused amazing healing to happen in such situations, but that’s the exception, not the expectation.

Similarly, if you have been hurt and you offer forgiveness, it doesn’t mean that the other person is no longer responsible for his/her actions.  It doesn’t mean that you were never hurt or betrayed, and it doesn’t mean that you trust them immediately and without reservation. It is not hateful, intolerant, or unforgiving to allow justice to catch up with someone who has hurt you– it IS unforgiving to seek beyond justice to vengeance and self-defined retribution.

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This is particularly important in cases of abuse.  If someone has abused you, physically, emotionally, or mentally, they are likely to make you feel the guilt they don’t want to deal with.  “You drove me to it.”  “You are the only one who understands my anger.”  Forgiving this person does not mean– it NEVER means– that you agree with their tactics and false accusations, or that you are giving them a pass.  But it DOES mean that you are giving them, and the damage they caused, over to the God of all justice.  Your case is closed; your final judgment is in his hands, and you are free to begin again– begin to heal, begin to see how God can bring something important and good and eternal out of something broken.  Forgiveness is impossible, but God will give you the power to do it– it may take several attempts, and several years, but when it comes, it will be the miracle of God working through you to glory!

Praying for the Enemy

Everybody has enemies.  And when I use the term “enemies”, I’m really referring to two types of people.  There are the people who are your enemies– they hate you.  They are scheming to hurt or destroy you; people who defame or slander you; people who betray you; people who cheat and lie to and steal from and abuse you or those closest to you.  Then there are the people for whom you are an enemy– you don’t like them, you don’t trust them, you don’t respect them; you probably defame or gossip about them, and you hurt them, even if it is unintentional.  Some enemies fall into both categories, but not all.

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I would love to say that I have no enemies–of either type.  But, alas, they exist– both types.   God calls on us to love our enemies, to pray for them, to show them kindness, and to bless them!  In our own power, we can’t do this.  We can make the attempt to forgive the unforgivable, to love the unlovable, and reconcile the impossible, but we fall short in our attempts:  the betrayal is too deep; the hurt is too overwhelming; the damage is irreversible, and the impossible is just…well…impossible.

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Loving our enemies is one of the proofs of God’s existence, his goodness, his power, his own boundless love at work through our imperfect words and efforts.  Praying for our enemies, showing kindness and grace in the face of hatred and betrayal–these are miracles that defy explanation.  That is one good reason to keep praying for the enemies in our lives– God can work through us to effect reconciliation, healing, and peace.

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Another good reason is that prayer changes US.  Praying for our enemies is difficult.  It is humbling.  It breaks our pride and forces us to let go of the bitterness and recognize God’s rightful place as judge, avenger, and healer.  It reminds us that God’s love, being boundless and eternal, stretches to those people who don’t deserve it, whether that is the hurtful person you don’t want to forgive, or the hurtful YOU who needs to be forgiven.

But praying for our enemies isn’t just about bringing peace and harmony or transforming us into better versions of ourselves.  No amount of willpower, or good intention, or logic, or internal fortitude, or peaceful meditation, or persuasive rhetoric, or even powerful prayer are enough to eliminate our enemies or make us perfect in love.

 

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We pray for our enemies, but not all of our enemies.  There are two enemies we need to pray AGAINST– Sin and Satan.  They are the true enemies, trying to destroy both sinner and sinned-against.  They are not just our enemies, but enemies of God.  Both are defeated.  Their power is illusory, and their damage, while intensely painful, is temporary.  And when we refuse to pray for our human “enemies” we serve their destructive purposes.

 

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